Monday, April 12, 2004

Reading Plan

I finally broke down Saturday when I was at Half Price Books and bought The New Lifetime Reading Plan, Fourth Edition, by Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major. I had seen it sitting there in virtually the same spot on the shelf for the last three months. I have very mixed feelings about books like this. I hate it when someone tells me I have to read "___." It takes me back to when I was a kid and my mom or dad is towering over me telling me "Because I said so." I immediately shift to rebellious child mode, turn off any interest I might have had in the book and immediately decide that it's not worth my time. But I am also a recovering English major and I have a bad case of the shoulds: I haven't read James Joyce's Ulysses, I should read that. The shoulds can be excruciating, the more firmly a book is entrenched as a classic and the less I know anything about it, the bigger and pointier the should becomes until I either give in or am covered in Band-Aids and am too embarrassed to show my face in any reputable literary establishment (bookstores not included). I don't know why I decided to buy The New Lifetime Reading Plan. I mean, it isn't as if I needed to be told what classics I hadn't read. I know, believe me, I know. While some people's deep dark secrets might be an affair or a felony, mine is my list of classics I haven't read. I expected the book to be Harold Bloom-ish--extolling the virtues of the canon and brow beating the reader into submission. I was pleasantly surprised. I had never bothered to actually open the book and look at it until I had brought it home. While there are books and authors you would expect, Homer, Plato, Milton, Freud, there are those that surprised me, The Ramayana, Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book, Basho, Chinua Achebe. And what surprised me most was the list of authors in the "Going Further" section of 100 additional 20th century authors, Margaret Atwood, Italo Calvino, Rachel Carson, Barbara Pym. There is not much in the way of poetry (and I have been doing a bad job of bringing you poetry here this month), and I could say there are some important authors missing, but over all, I think it is a well rounded book of suggested reading. The main portion of the book is not a list, but series of short introductions to the author and the works suggested. The authors and texts are presented in chronological order and the author will sometimes explain why he chose one work over another. At the back of the book is an extended bibliography listing the different editions or translations of a work and suggesting further reading about the author and critical writing about the work and times of the author. I don't plan on following their suggestions. I do expect to be using it as a sort of minor resource, a supplement to my own choice of reading material. I've been thinking lately about reading more "classics." I am a wanna be novelist and one of the best ways to get ideas and inspiration and see how good it's done is to read good writing. If a book is considered classic or the writer thought to be important, then it's a good bet that the book will be worthwhile whether or not I like it. Perhaps it was a combination of these thoughts, the purchase of The New Lifetime Reading Plan and a minor case of the shoulds, that helped me go crazy Sunday at Barnes and Noble and buy Anna Karenina, Candide, Ethan Frome and Selected Stories and The Metamorphosis and Other Stories. The new editions of the Barnes and Noble classics are pleasant looking and cheap so how could I go wrong? Now I just have to read them. That's one thing the authors don't offer suggestions on in the Reading Plan, how to make the time to read all these books. I guess that plan is up to me.